Thursday, 28 March 2013

'Silent House' by Orhan Pamuk (Review - IFFP 2013, Number 9)

Our next leg of the IFFP magical mystery tour takes us off to Turkey to consider a work by a very familiar name.   It's no surprise that a Nobel-Prize winner finds himself on the longlist - it is surprising that it's taking this long though.  Today's choice was originally published three decades ago...

Silent House by Orhan Pamuk (translated by Robert Finn - from Hamish Hamilton)
What's it all about?
The year is 1980, the location Cennethisar, a coastal village fifty kilometres from Istanbul.  Three siblings have come to visit their grandmother, making their annual pilgrimage to pay their respects, visit their parents' graves and have some fun in the sun while they're at it.  This year, though, is destined to be different - turbulent times are just around the corner, and the family is about to be caught up in the fever sweeping the country.

Pamuk's novel is set at a time of great upheaval in Turkey.  According to Wikipedia, the overall death toll in the country in the 1970s from violence is estimated at 5,000, with nearly ten assassinations per day.  Just a month after the events of this novel, there was a coup d'état, after which the military ruled for three years.  Even in the sleepy town of Cennethisar, rival gangs of 'Communists' and 'Fascists' are roaming the streets, extorting protection money and attacking the enemy.  This summer is unlikely to end well...

Silent House is narrated by five voices, each of which is distinct and well written: Fatma, the grandmother; Faruk and Metin (Fatma's two grandsons); Recep, her servant; and Hasan, a character whose relationship to the family is a lot more complicated than it first appears.  The five voices provide a continuous narrative, one taking up the story where another breaks off, and because of this, the novel is a little slow to get into gear (as many reviews have remarked).  During the first half of the novel, there is little plot to speak of, and when bookish Faruk talks about his literary plans, it's hard to avoid drawing parallels with the book in hand:
"Someone reading my book from cover to cover will during those weeks and months end up able to glimpse that cloudlike mass of events that I managed to perceive while working here, and like me he'll murmur excitedly: This is history, this is history and life..."
p.165 (Hamish Hamilton, 2013)
Like Pamuk, Faruk is more concerned with depicting life than fascinating the reader with his narrative.

Gradually though, the family squabbles and parties give way to more serious issues.  We see hints of potential trouble as Hasan and his friends start to throw their weight around.  The right-wing gangs frown upon the flesh the holidaymakers show on the beach and the alcohol the rich kids swig back each night.  As they grow in confidence, the gang members begin to throw their weight around more and more, which spells trouble for anyone caught reading a Communist newspaper - like Fatma's grand-daughter, Nilgün...

What eventually develops from the pages of Silent House is a picture of two cultures clashing, a national challenge mirroring the global struggles of the Cold War.  The two sides feel themselves locked in a fight where there can be only one winner.  It's a fight between the new ways and the old, Communism versus Fascism, secular life against the appeal of Islam - and it provides young men with a taste for violence with an outlet for their rage, justified or otherwise.  Hasan (who has a lot to be angry about) certainly has no intention of leading a quiet life:
"I know that the day they see I've grown used to it, they'll be so pleased, and they'll declare with satisfaction, He's finally learned how it goes in life, but I'm not signing up for your life, gentlemen, I'll get a gun and teach you how it goes." (p.154)
Over the course of the novel, it is Hasan's development which mirrors the events starting to happen in the country, and his fate which Turkey shares.

Silent House is a slow-moving, but ultimately fascinating slice of life.  It's a collection of personal stories set against the backdrop of a time of national importance, and I felt it worked really well.  Now imagine how it might have read when it was first published - only three years after the event ;)

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Yes.  I enjoyed it, despite the slow start.  After a hundred pages, like many people (some of whom never got to the end...), I had my doubts, but it eventually draws you in.  Oh, and it makes a nice change from the Second World War too.  This could well be one of my top six when I finally get to the end of my reading.

Will it make the shortlist?
No.  I'm not sure that the judges will see enough here to get it over the line.  In a weaker year (in need of star power), it'd make it.  This year's longlist is fairly strong, and the shortlist won't need a Nobel Prize Winner to give it extra appeal :)

Onwards and upwards - it's just a short hop from Turkey up to Italy's Adriatic coast.  Trieste is supposed to be lovely at this time of year...